Isaacson Hails ‘Historic’ BBG Restructuring Plan

Board moving to consolidate RFE/RL, RFA and MBN
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The Broadcasting Board of Governors is pushing ahead with its planned restructuring of U.S. international broadcasting.

Among other things, it wants to consolidate administrative aspects of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, though retain their missions. It also seeks authority to establish a chief executive officer and to target programming domestically. It is now laying out a specific plan for those goals.

BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson said Brian Conniff, president of MBN, will act as project leader for the consolidation.

These efforts are apart from discussions of possible larger savings by reducing duplication of language services with two other BBG entities: Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Martí). Those discussions have included consideration of possibly “defederalizing” VOA and OCB.

The news about consolidating the administrative functions of RFE/RL, RFA and MBN is not a surprise; the board had announced its intention to restructure in a recently released strategic plan, reported by RW (see sidebar). But it now has passed a resolution to proceed. Isaacson called this step “a historic agreement by the board to streamline international broadcasting into one great organization focused on quality journalism with many brands and many divisions but unified as one organization.”

The changes require congressional and presidential action; BBG is drafting a legislative package that will be called the International Broadcasting Innovation Act of 2012. It would do away with the domestic dissemination ban in the Smith-Mundt Act and rename the agency. The position of IBB director, a presidential appointee, would be eliminated, replaced by an official chosen by the CEO.

In the announcement, Isaacson sought to reassure people familiar with the existing organizations: “Any reform plan will retain and celebrate the individual and historic brands and their journalistic mission.”

Savings

The new corporate structure would share a “unified administrative and legal framework.” As summarized in a Deloitte study of the planned merger, RFE/RL, RFA and MBN now are separate private 501(c)(3) organizations with resources of $240 million and about 2,000 employees and contractors. “All have a common mission to act as a surrogate media outlet in countries that do not have an open media environment.” MBN also is supposed to provide “context about America, its people and policies.”

The Big Picture

As RW reported in November, the BBG has planned, requested or is considering some big changes overall.

In addition to the merger described in the accompanying story, those changes include a further “sharp drawdown” of U.S. shortwave capacity outside of a half-dozen key target countries; proposed repeal of the 1948 ban on “domestic dissemination” of content to listeners and viewers in the United States; de-federalizing some of the agency’s work; ending language services in countries that have more developed, independent media; and moving substantial news and production assets from Washington, nearer target nations. A merger of the staff of the BBG and the International Broadcasting Bureau is already in progress.

BBG has said it wants to integrate elements of U.S. international broadcasting into a single organization while preserving its familiar brands. BBG has promised “wholesale changes” in how content is distributed.

Also among its plans: to create a global news network out of its 59 language services; develop automated translation to help users; expand delivery technologies such as satellite video for China, Central Asia and Southeast Asia; explore new ways to counter Internet blocking and other forms of censorship; launch a prototype TV channel in Latin America that features “crowd-sourced” content for young people; and place FM antennas at U.S. embassies in Africa as a low-cost additional radio outlet.

A merger would not only save money through streamlining, the organization says, but “creates an enforceable structure for more formalized content sharing.”

That study found little overlap in language services or bureau locations but that “a combined entity framework can set the foundation for achieving substantial synergies with respect to the large overlap with VOA language services.”

Deloitte thinks BBG can save $30 million to $40 million over five years, depending in part on whether it pursues “aggressive” consolidation of facilities. It projects a “small headcount reduction” of “approximately 45–50 resources.” In the longer term, the study found, “there are opportunities for additional headcount reduction if facilities are more aggressively consolidated.”

The study added that about three-quarters of the resources of the three organizations are devoted to content and programming, “so their day to day roles will not change.”

Related:
U.S. International Broadcasting Aims for Sweeping Changes

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